The past is big business in Indian politics. While one party swears by the past for legitimacy, another hounds and vilifies that very past to consolidate its present. It is raucous and violent when Indians confront their past. This is more so in the context of the memory and monuments. A vast country with layers of ideological, religious and cultural attributes it is often difficult to have a narrative of the past that is appreciated and appropriated by all.
This has often led to what one might describe as exercise in vendetta politics. This is evident in bashing one ideology over the other or one community over the other. Hence, India experiences regular doses of communal riots. At times, inanimate objects like statues and monuments become objects of derision, hatred and destruction.
File photo of Lenin's statue before it was toppled in Tripura's Belonia town on 6 March. Twitter/@cpimspeak
As a rule of thumb, religious monuments have always been in the eye of vendetta politics. Each of India's multi-religious communities has at one time or the other experienced some kind of attack against its places of worship. If the Hindu monuments were desecrated and destroyed in the past, some Islamic and Christian monuments have come under attack by the Hindus in recent years. The most famous case of this vandalism goes back to the year 1992. On 6 December, 1992, a violent Hindu mob pulled down the disputed Babri mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya. To many, this undertaking was an attempt to rewrite the country's history from the majority community's worldview. Those who defended it called it "an act of historical balance".
Past is another country
Fortunately, these enterprises and occasions remain infrequent. Violence has not always been the leitmotif to address the vestiges of the past. Very often, political pundits and policymakers in India, think that the easiest way to change the past is to rename it. Every time there is change of guard in the national or the provincial capital, a name-change exercise gets underway. While some undertakings like the replacing of Bombay with Mumbai, Madras with Chennai or Bangalore with Bengaluru have been relatively cosmetic and peaceful, this has set off a dangerous precedent.
When a group or the masses feel that renaming parts of the country's past is an entitlement, it sets alarm bells ringing. Moreover, this political vocation can become a liability. We have been witness to a dangerous development in recent days across India. When the nationalist BJP won a convincing victory over the Communists who controlled the North East state of Tripura, among other things, the celebrations led to the immediate bulldozing of two statues of Vladimir Lenin.
When questioned about this move, a section of the party that assumed power defended it as an "exercise in redressing the past". The state's governor went on record by suggesting that such things are inevitable. For, "what one democratically elected government can do another democratically elected government can undo. And, vice versa".
The sands of history
In India, where memory is ideologically driven, there were copycat acts of vandalism targeting the busts of leaders and ideologues (who stood for a specific narrative) in other parts of the country. A stern warning from the country's prime minister has so far kept an uneasy truce on this monument massacre project. Meanwhile, another battle is taking place in the Indian media " the intellectuals defending or criticising the right to destroy the busts, statues or monuments.
While the Left cries foul on the bulldozing and toppling of its ideologue Lenin's statue, the Right has defended its position by stressing that it is at best an exercise in selective amnesia. The Right argues, the Left shall do well by remembering its own acts of vandalism and destruction orchestrated in the 1960s and 1970s in West Bengal when "it routinely disfigured the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda".
Meanwhile, every community and every ideology is trying to outweigh the other through its own tailor-made memory monument building initiative. While the BJP is trying to put its stamp on the national topography by renaming roads and instituting busts of its ideologues " derided as unpatriotic and Nazi-sympathisers in the past, others are fast catching up. The marginalised Dalits meanwhile have not left any vital physical space under their control empty where they could instal the statues and busts of their prophets BS Ambedkar or the Buddha.
All these monument-builders and destroyers in contemporary India would do well to pay a visit to New Delhi's Coronation Pillar Grounds. Scattered on the ground are unloved, unadorned and abandoned slowly rotting statues of former British strongmen who built their greatest empire " in India. Once towering on high marble pedestals, these were dislodged and dumped in such unceremonious burial sites across the country.
Lest we forget, history is unforgiving, especially to those who wish to control it.
The author is senior lecturer, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University, UK